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There's one more big task I need to perform as Ulster captain, says Rory Best

 

By Jonathan Bradley

A desire to leave behind a legacy was what spurred Rory Best to reclaim the Ulster captaincy this off-season.

The Ireland skipper surrendered the armband at his home province in 2016, with Andrew Trimble and Rob Herring filling the void last season, but he will be back in the role for a third stint later this month once he recovers from a hamstring injury.

Ulster's only Test centurion, and the first from this island to captain a senior side to victory over the All Blacks, will always be the natural figurehead of any team he is a part of at Kingspan Stadium, but feels that bringing through the next generation of leaders will be a key part of his remit in the coming years.

"A lot of the stuff over pre-season was geared towards identifying key senior players but that's not the most straightforward thing with Ulster," said the man who once again captained the Lions in midweek games on their tour this summer.

"You always get people who are stand-out candidates but with Ulster, among our sort of mid-20s group, there hasn't been that many of those.

"They're really good players, but maybe not ones who have come through under-age sides as captains.

"It's trying to identify who we have now that's the here and now, but also identifying ones for the future. That was a large part of the work that we did (in the summer) and now it's about leaning more on those boys."

Having represented Ulster, Ireland and the Lions by the age of 25, Iain Henderson seems to be the most natural successor to Best when the indefatigable hooker eventually does hang up the boots, and Best wants to see his team-mate continue to shoulder more of the load moving forward.

"The likes of Iain Henderson is somebody that has a load of talent but, potentially, to take the next step he has to take more of a leadership role," he said.

"We've seen him calling line-outs now, something that people 12 or 18 months ago would have said would never happen, but now he's done it in a massive (Six Nations) game against England and for the Lions.

"Now he has to take another step and that's part of a legacy that I want to leave. I probably felt I hadn't done that when I stepped down the last time, hadn't left Ulster in a better position leadership-wise."

The original announcement that Best would once again be Les Kiss' skipper raised questions about his role with the national side.

The likes of Paul O'Connell and Brian O'Driscoll have been recent examples of how double-jobbing in terms of captaining both club and country hardly seems en vogue, the latter noting last month he was "interested" to see Best take on the heavy workload.

The Banbridge man did talk to Joe Schmidt as part of the decision process this summer, joking at yesterday's Champions Cup launch in Dublin's Convention Centre that he was still Ireland captain unless the national boss had let media know something he didn't.

"It was something we talked a lot about over the summer. I captained those Lions sides in midweek and really enjoyed it, I enjoy captaining Ireland," he said.

"I spoke with Les and I spoke with Joe and just sort of said, with the leadership group we have in both teams, it's something that can be done.

"I think I give more to Ulster as captain. We had a really good talk about it and that was what I offered to Les. We talked with Andrew and Rob too, they were happy. Everybody was happy with it.

"It was important that everyone was comfortable, me as much as anyone. Both Les and Joe were sort of saying whatever helped me play better, they were happy. It's something I enjoy doing and something I think I respond to better."

Given Best's standing in the game here, and his continued level of performance even as he sits halfway through his 30s, he will no doubt be one whose contract status garners plenty of attention between now and the New Year.

With under 12 months to run on the IRFU deal he signed back in 2015, the three-time Six Nations winner re-iterated his previous stance that retirement remains a relatively distant prospect.

"Nothing has changed for me," he said. "It'll be nice to get playing and see how I feel again but I think, watching the games now, I'm frustrated because I want to be out there playing and for me that's a good sign.

"I think if you start to talk about age too much, you start to feel you're old.

"Look at Donncha O'Callaghan and Strings (Peter Stringer) at Worcester... I'm not saying I'll go to 40 but if I feel like I can compete and play to a high level that I can be proud of, I'll keep playing.

"I don't want to dwindle away but at the same time I don't want to be sitting here in 12 months thinking I could still play at that level."

The current frustrating spell on the sidelines, he hopes, will soon come to an end, a return in time to play some part for Ulster before Schmidt names his squad for the autumn internationals described as "realistic".

"It's progressing as expected," he said of the hamstring strain that was picked up in training three weeks ago and has to date delayed his seasonal debut.

"Normally with injuries I try and push them on but we have a really good medical team up at Ulster and they're talking closely with the guys in Dublin.

"Sometimes if you push it too much you can set yourself back and do more damage. At the minute I'm on course, hopefully for the second round of Europe (against La Rochelle on October 22). We'll not set anything in stone but that's a realistic goal."

Given the size of the games ahead for Ulster and Ireland in the coming months, both will welcome back their skipper with open arms.

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